Only the Super Rich Can Save Us! by Ralph Nader

Neither fiction nor fact, Nader's sprawling novel is another venue for the same political ideas we've heard, not an opportunity for creativity.

Only the Super Rich Can Save Us

Publisher: Seven Stories Press
Length: 736
Author: Ralph Nader
Price: $27.50
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2009-09

Imagine this: as the United States government botches Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, billionaire Warren Buffet watches his TV and decides that as one of the country's wealthiest citizens, it is probably a good idea for him to step in and take over. He knows he cannot do it alone, so he schedules a Hawaiian retreat for a group of his "super-rich" cohorts and convinces them, over lavish buffets and hour-long silent meditations, that they can team up and stage a financial coup of America. The events described may seem highly improbable, even beyond the realm of imagination, but they are the brainchild of political contrarian and social activist Ralph Nader who, although his book is a parody, makes a valid case that Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!

Unfortunately, while Nader's conclusion is pragmatic and valid, his book is not. Walking the line between satire and fairy tale, the work of fiction fails to be either. Nader knows this; he has called the book not a novel but a "practical utopia". That does not change the fact that it's marketed and formatted as a novel, and falls short of satisfying the needs of its genre. Nader aims to be literary -- even funny -- but his attempts at humor are somewhat sour. He is in the unfortunate position of actually disliking his protagonists, a fact that at times makes his allegedly uptopic book more depressing than enlightening.

He alternates between making the “super rich” seem like idiots, and lauching them into complex political and sociological scenarios in which they bring his structural dreams to fruition. Nader has not given the transformation of these billionaires any real thought, but rather made them "mini-Nader" robots who have held on to their own idiosyncratic quirks while acting socially and fiscally out of character.

It's not clear what Nader hopes to convey by making Warren Buffet drink a cherry Coke every two pages. It feels more amateur and grating than amusing. But when Sol Price, founder of Price Club asks where the food is every five seconds, it's not clear whether it's an attempt at Jewish humor or a dig at the gluttony of the Costco market, and it's uncomfortable. Maybe in the hands of a better writer, these jokes might have been funny, but the prose in this book is that of a B-grade paperback.

Of course, it's imperitive for every critic to judge a book based on its intention, and it would be unfair not to emphasize and consider that Nader has not even described this book as fiction, but rather as a “practical utopia” as mentioned above. The book is the result of years of brainstorming on his part. However, as a politician and social activist, Nader has other venues to express his ideas and did not need to explore this one if he was not fully committed.

A responsible critique of this book needs to ask the question: why this genre and format? Unfortunately, there is no answer to that question. The narrative is choppy and reaches its insurmountable 736 pages by cramming in every detail of Nader’s visions with no regard for flow of a compelling plot or engaging prose. There is also an underlying smugness. Nader turns all his characters into caricatures, which might work if Nader was a skilled satirist rather than a politician trying to inch his way into a new industry. Unfortunately, Nader’s self-righteousness seeps out, hurting the reader’s ability be inspired.

For example, why should I care that Warren Beatty is going to usurp Schwarzenegger as governor of California when the staging is set by making Beatty look like he is bored, insecure, and has nothing better to do than run for office? Nader’s point about celebrities in office is a good one, if that is even what he is trying to say. And of course, Beatty is the lesser of two evils in this case. But in the space of this novel, it leaves a bad after taste. Nader wants us to envision a possible, if fantastical, solution, but his inability to navigate the path from dreams to reality leaves the reader lost and timorous.

There are some moments when Nader's fantasies brought a smile to my face. When the transformations gain momentum, it's exciting to imagine that America could really move forward in the way Nader hopes, and every once in a while, a joke about a particular character is funny. But Nader uses gimmicks and repetition rather than real character development. Every person in the book becomes a puppet for Nader, so they all blend together and fail to be compelling.

Even certain attempts at developing a storyline just seem like a waste of time. There is a significant space devoted to the journey the super-rich go on while they try to pick a name for themselves. Will they call themselves the Patriotic Meliorists or just the Meliorists? (How is this possibly important to me?)

That dilemma, and others, suggests that Nader has perhaps outdone himself in this endeavor. There are past examples of effective use of fiction to introduce revolutionary ideas, but Nader's work is too sprawling and disorganized to be one. The idea of this book could be be quite appealing if it were conveyed in the length of a Shouts and Murmurs column in The New Yorker, but since it is, by Nader's own admission, practically stream of conscious, it loses its ability to be piercing.


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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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